Oh, no! Were we wrong about exclamation marks?July 07, 2015
I know your little secret.
You use exclamation marks.
There! I said it. And in case you’re feeling embarrassed, let me state for the record: I use them too.
We all do. In our social media posts. In emails. Texts. In those posters we stick up in the kitchen asserting our property rights over the organic vanilla and lemongrass yoghurt in the fridge.
Yet this benighted punctuation mark has earned itself the worst of all reputations.
Blogger Henneke Duistermat has called them the hallmark of the pushy salesman.
I myself have ranted, at length, on their evils. On courses, and in books like Write to Sell.
Newspaper sub-editors used to refer to the exclamation mark as the “dog’s dick”.
But are they really so bad? If they are, how did they come about in the first place? As part of our written language, they were unlikely to have been dreamt up in the first instance simply to be reviled.
Let’s look at three perfectly acceptable uses of the exclamation mark.
“Oh my God!”
After certain emphatic sentences in the imperative mood.
In place names. OK, place name.
Fowler’s Modern Usage, surely one of the careful writer’s bibles (though not “bibles” or, indeed, Bibles) asserts that, “Not to use a mark of exclamation is sometimes wrong: How they laughed., instead of How they laughed!, is not English [my italics]. Wow!
Perhaps the most famous, and certainly the most damning, quotation about exclamation marks is F Scott Fitzgerald’s, “The exclamation mark is the sound of the writer applauding himself”.
This is often shortened to “literary canned laughter”, but the meaning is clear.
It’s the punctuation equivalent of the “d’yageddit?” elbow in the ribs after a not-very-funny joke is punted your way by a hopeful comic. The “ba-dum-tisch” of the vaudeville drummer to emphasise another flabby punchline.
And, of course, it has been used and abused for decades, possibly centuries, by generation after generation of hack writers, from the authors of penny dreadfuls to tabloid journalists and pile-em-high-sell-em-cheap advertisers, aided and abetted by their copywriter lackeys.
Naturally, when confronted with a headline that reads, in all its lame glory:
Exciting pensions news!
we can be forgiven for patting ourselves on the back and identifying the exclamation mark as yet further proof that it’s the tool of, well, tools.
But how about a headline like this:
“I can’t believe it. I won a million pounds!”
Would that be as strong and as convincing, if rendered thus:
“I can’t believe it. I won a million pounds.”
Somehow it looks flat, bordering on the sarcastic, in fact.
The real problem, and the one for which writers like Henneke and I propose such draconian solutions as “NO EXCLAMATION MARKS!”, is lazy writing itself.
If the best way you can dramatise a special offer on your office furniture is to write,
“Executive chair in real leather – now only £159!”
then you had better hand in your “copywriter” badge and get a job as a fairground barker.
But how about this classic, from Raymond Rubicam?
Is that exclamation mark really all that bad? Was Rubicam “sleazy”? Or trying, somehow, to pull the wool over our eyes about the true appeal of Lifesavers? I’m not sure.
But hey! What do I know?
Disagree violently? Agree, with reservations? Leave a comment!